This article has been republished on January 10, 2021, in light of Amazon S3, one of the most powerful web hosting services in the industry, cutting server access to Parler. Parler is now looking to move to a new service provider.
The basic idea of Parler is an awful lot like Twitter. But instead of tweets, users post “Parleys”. Instead of retweets, there are “echoes.” And upon registering, the suggested accounts to follow include new outlets such as Breitbart, the Epoch Times, and the Daily Caller, as well as the political accounts for Rand Paul, Mark Levin, and Team Trump.
In June, right-wing users started flocking to this alt-Twitter, whose main selling point is that it vows to champion free speech. As mainstream platforms banned more far-right accounts, removed hate speech with newfound vigour, and attached warning labels to a few of President Donald Trump’s tweets, Parler became, for many, an attractive solution to Twitter’s supposed ills.
Now, it’s the second most popular app in the App Store, and last week it was estimated to have reached more than 1.5 million daily users, snagging some high-profile newbies: Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Elise Stefanik, Representative Jim Jordan, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump. What led to Parler’s founding in August 2018 was, predictably, disillusionment with the likes of the Silicon Valley giants. Henderson, Nevada–based software engineers Jared Thomson and John Matze created the platform, according to Parler’s website, “[a]fter being exhausted with a lack of transparency in big tech, ideological suppresssion [sic] and privacy abuse.”
Yet while the platform is being billed as the big “free speech” alternative to Twitter, it isn’t exactly unique. Nor is it as uncensored as it claims to be. Parler is just the latest in a long line of rival social networks that have appeared (and, often, disappeared) in the past decade as alternatives to Big Tech. And, if the past is any indicator, it’s unlikely that Parler will become anything more than a fringe platform in the near future.
Some of the platforms to emerge as alternatives to the major social networks have taken a hard line on data privacy. Ello, for example, was founded in 2014 as an ad-free network that promised never to sell user data to advertisers. (After being dubbed a “Facebook killer,” the site was overwhelmed with new users and crashed frequently; it could never scale up and instead became a community for digital artists.) MeWe, another Facebook rival, offers the industry’s first Privacy Bill of Rights. (It also takes a laissez-faire approach to content moderation.) And while its 8 million users are dwarfed by Facebook’s 2.6 billion, MeWe is one of the few successful alternative networks in that it’s continued to grow since its founding in 2016.
Matze, Parler’s CEO who counts Ayn Rand and conservative economist Thomas Sowell among his influences, fancies his platform a sort of free-speech utopia: “We’re a community town square, an open town square, with no censorship,” Matze told CNBC. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.” And while Parler says it is unbiased—Matze is offering a $20,000 “progressive bounty” for a popular liberal pundit to join—it’s evidently become an unofficial home to the far right, which has long claimed to be mistreated by mainstream platforms. When alt-right “celebrities,” such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer, are banned from Twitter, Parler is their next step. (Loomer announced last week that she has become the first person whose Parler following—572,000—exceeds her pre-ban Twitter following.)
In this regard, Parler is most similar to Gab, the free speech–driven platform launched in 2017 that’s known as a haven for extremists. “[F]ar angrier and uglier” than Parler, Gab quickly became a breeding ground for anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, where posts calling for terrorist attacks and violence against minorities circulate.
Gab’s fate, however, represents one iteration of the circle of life for platforms of its ilk: After it was connected to an instance of terrorism in 2018, when the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting posted about his intentions to act just before he killed 11 people, Gab never quite recovered. Its server, GoDaddy, dropped it, and though it eventually found another home online, its popularity waned following the shooting and the period offline. In 2019, a software engineer for Gab’s web hosting company said that the platform probably had a few tens of thousands of users at most—rather than the 835,000 that Gab claimed—though the hosting company later denied that.
But Parler doesn’t quite have Gab’s teeth. (Andrew Torba, Gab’s founder, has referred to Parler as a network for “Z-list Maga celebrities.”) While even Gab has limits to free speech, since its content policy purports to ban extremism, Parler is stricter. It goes far beyond what you might expect from a platform whose entire ethos is freedom of expression. Matze listed a few of the basic rules in a “Parley” on Tuesday:
This is how the Parler CEO describes their content policies pic.twitter.com/fiPnNCpxgd
— Cristiano Lima (@viaCristiano) June 30, 2020
As the top Twitter comment points out, “Twitter allows four of the five things that Parler censors.” Parler’s thorough community guidelines also prohibit spam, terrorist activity, defamation, “fighting words,” and obscenity, among other kinds of speech. And Parler’s user agreement includes clauses that may seem antithetical to its mission.
The platform “may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason,” it states. But perhaps most surprising is this:
17. You agree to defend and indemnify Parler, as well as any of its officers, directors, employees, and agents, from and against any and all claims, actions, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to all attorneys fees) arising from or relating to your access to and use of the Services. Parler will have the right to conduct its own defence, at your expense, in any action or proceeding covered by this indemnity.
The indemnity provision means that if Parler faces a lawsuit for something you post, you pay. Basically, you’re free to say whatever you want—as long as it falls within the community guidelines, and as long as you’re willing to take the risk.
That Parler has been reportedly banning users en masse this week only further illuminates the façade of free speech on the platform; but regardless of the extent to which one can or cannot “Parley” whatever they want, the fact remains that the platform is becoming an important space for the American far right.
It’s worth considering, then, what its members might do with it. Part of the concern over polarised platforms is that they can lead to radicalisation: In general, they’re seen as part of the pipeline to extremism. First, extremist movements find a foothold in mainstream platforms, where they present their norms in a slightly more palatable way, explained Jeremy Blackburn, a computer science professor at Binghamton University who researches fringe and extremist web communities. Then they gain ground in platforms like Parler that straddle the fringe and mainstream.
“Once you remove any question of there being an echo chamber, there’s just obvious consequences,” Blackburn said.
While this may be cause for concern, Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher and professor at Queen’s University, is skeptical that Parler will really galvanise the right. “I think part of what animates the right—and the left to some extent—and particularly the far right, is the ability to argue with ‘the other,’” Amarasingam said.
Interacting (and fighting) with the left reinforces the far right’s identity, giving it meaning and purpose, he said, and from studying similar platforms like Gab, Amarasingam has found that “talking to yourself in the dark corners of the internet is actually not that satisfying.” And while he believes it might lead to the radicalization of certain individuals within the far right, the platform itself won’t necessarily further the ideologies of extremist right-wing groups.
What Parler could do, Amarasingam believes, is serve as a kind of sounding board for the far right, a place for fringe movements to try out and refine different arguments. Essentially, it could be a “factory of sorts,” churning out ideas before they’re deployed into the mainstream. Maybe one day, at least—for now, a good portion of the conversation of Parler is about how fantastic the platform is and how dumb the old tech giants are. Amarasingam acknowledged this.
“[W]hat that indicates to me is that they actually are just using Parler to vent their anger of being suspended from what really matters, which has been more mainstream platform,” he said. “And so I think they’ll very much try to get back into wherever the conversation is happening.”
There’s also the matter of growth. Normally, these networks just don’t get that big. They’re considered “fringe” platforms for a reason, and there’s rarely a solid business model behind them.
In Parler’s case, the network was started with angel funding, and Matze hasn’t devised a clear business plan since. Currently, his tentative model is to match conservative influencers with advertisers, and have Parler take a cut of the influencer fee. But given brands’ recent reluctance to advertise on Facebook, this plan seems far from foolproof. With only 30 employees, Parler’s ability to handle more users will be tested.
It might grow—especially if Trump does decide to join after all—but, as Amarasingam put it, “if you’re not in the mainstream, you’re not in the mainstream.”
“Generally speaking, what I expect to see in these sites is they hit a certain threshold of users, just like any other social networking platform,” said Blackburn. “And then for these types of platforms that are explicitly attracting these certain types of users, probably one of them will do something stupid, then they get shut down or deplatformed, and the next one pops up.”
Chloe Hadavas is a writer based in Washington.